Cover illustration for 'Muzungu'.

Jeroen Janssen is a Belgian comic artist, best-known for his graphic novels that often have Rwanda or the Democratic Republic Congo as a subject. He won critical acclaim with 'Muzungu, Sluipend Gif in Rwanda' (1997), a semi-autobiographical account about his life in Rwanda until the 1994 genocide forced him and his family to flee. Together with scriptwriter Pieter van Oudheusden, he made several graphic novels, of which the 'Bakamé' (2003) trilogy is the best-known. Many of Janssen's comics are a mix between a travel report and sketch books. He has also shown interest in other countries, such as Ecuador ('Guaranda', 2015) and his own fatherland ('Doel' [2013], 'Er Wonen Nog Mensen / Tekenen van Leven in Doel' [2018]) about the Flemish village Doel which was threatened with demolition. The author received several awards over the years, while his work has been translated in English and French.

Early life
Jeroen Janssen was born in 1963 in Ghent. Between 1981 and 1985, he studied free graphics at the Sint-Lucas School of Arts in Ghent. Among his graphic influences are Edmond Baudoin, Cosey, Johan De Moor, Loustal, José Muñoz, Joe Sacco, Carlos Sampayo, Jean-Philippe Stassen, Jacques Tardi and Chris Ware. After graduation, Janssen helped psychiatric patients and worked several other jobs as, respectively, a chauffeur, gardener, publicity man in a fodder company and mailman. 

comic art by Jeroen Janssen

Life in Rwanda
In 1990, Janssen and his wife moved to Nyundo, Rwanda, where he worked as a teacher in the local art school. They had and raised a son and a daughter there. Janssen was overwhelmed with the local culture and splendor of nature. It inspired him to make many sketches, which evolved into his first comics, though he didn't publish anything yet. Unfortunately, the country succumbed into civil war when their daughter was two months old. On 6 April 1994, unknown assailants shot down the presidential plane, killing Rwandese president Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundese president Cyprien Ntayamira inside. Centuries-old tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi population were heated by extremist propaganda, each blaming the other side. Between 500.000 and 1 million people were murdered in one of the worst genocides in history. As foreigners, Janssen and his family weren't safe from violence. They hid below the sink of their home, because it was the only place where they would be safe from bullets. The next morning they fled to the neighbouring country Congo and took the first plane to Belgium.

Back in Belgium, after escaping the genocidal atrocities in Rwanda, Janssen worked as job coach. Eventually he became a part-time library assistent in Evergem. He was also active as a volunteer for the Red Cross and Oxfam Wereldwinkel. Still, he couldn't forget his traumatic experience. Luckily he had been able to take his artwork with him and decided to turn it into a graphic novel: 'Muzungu - Sluipend Gif' (Wonderland, 1997), a socially conscious comic book about his experiences in Rwanda. The word "muzungu" means "white man". The first chapter was drawn when he still lived in the country and deals with the gap between rich land owners and poor farmers. The second chapter discusses the horrors he witnessed during the genocide and was made after his return to Belgium. Janssen used a fictional protagonist and narrative, but otherwise many events in the book are autobiographical. 'Muzungu' met with critical acclaim and won the VSB award at the Stripdagen festival in Haarlem, the Netherlands. It increased his notability and led to more publications of shorter comics in magazines like Beeldstorm, Stripburger, Incognito, Kerozene, XXI, Parcifal, Ink, Orsai and Zone 5300.


Bakamé trilogy
When Janssen travelled to the Dutch city Haarlem to pick up his VSB award, he chatted with jury member Pieter van Oudheusden. Van Oudheusden was a novelist and translator who occasionally wrote scripts for comics. They decided to collaborate. Their first effort, 'Een Nachtegaal In De Stad' (Wonderland, 2000), follows four people on a hot summer night in the city. 'Klaarlichte Nacht' (Wonderland, 2001) is a collection of four erotic short stories. The duo won most acclaim with their trilogy about African folklore character Bakamé the hare. Bakamé is a trickster character comparable to similar animal tales in other continents. He inspired Joel Chandler Harris' 'Br'er Rabbit' in the United States (later made into a popular Disney character too). Van Oudheusden and Janssen also saw similarities with the Flemish medieval poem about Reynard the Fox. The authors took several pre-existing stories about Bakamé and molded them in the graphic novel 'Bakamé' (Oogachtend, 2003), where the sly rodent torments the mayor of the real-life Rwandese village Buruseri.

'De Grote Toveraar'.

In 2007, Janssen made his first return to Rwanda in 13 years. He revisited his old friends, pupils and locals and made photographs and drawings which found their way in his next graphic novel 'De Grote Toveraar: De Kruisweg van Mpyisi' (Oogachtend, 2007), a partial sequel to 'Bakamé'. Written by Van Oudheusden, the story centers around Mpyisi, a hyena struck by bad luck. Bakamé has stolen his car motor and put it inside an aeroplane which carried the national football team. When the plane crashes, the entire country is angry with Mpsiyi. The only way to get out of this mess is visiting Bwana Kero, a legendary magician who might be able to help him. In 2010, 'De Wraak van Bakamé' was published, which compiled 'Bakamé' and 'De Grote Toveraar' and added a new Bakamé story, originally serialized in Stripgids and Ink. 'De Wraak van Bakamé' was also translated in French. It was never the authors' intention to turn Bakamé into a trilogy and most of the stories are one-shots with no real continuity. But in the end the three available books are often dubbed 'the Bakamé trilogy' in the press, because Bakamé is a central character in all three individual titles. Sadly enough, in 2013 the fruitful collaboration with Van Oudheusden came to an end when he passed away from a brain tumor. 

'Klaarlichte Nacht'.

Collaborations with Hilde Baele
In 2004, Janssen illustrated 'Imigani' (2004), a group of Rwandese sayings, calligraphed by his wife Els Schneiders. In the early 2010s Hilde Baele and Janssen worked together to make 'L' Histoire d'un Truc Bizarre', an educational book to stimulate condom use among Rwandese youth. The project unfortunately was rejected because the Ministry of National Education in Rwanda and the U.S. financers took offense about certain tiny details, including a small stain on the boy's pants and the fact that the kid's buttocks were slightly exposed in one drawing. They also objected to a scene where a store owner dozes off and the fact that the child protagonists were supposedly a Hutu and a Tutsi, "clearly recognizable by their clothing", even though Janssen just drew two black kids without any other intentions. In the end, Baele illustrated the book herself, but Janssen and Baele did create two other picture stories. One of them was a little book, 'Ese Teta Ntiyumvira?', which Janssen called "a very bland children's book", but was nevertheless published on a massive scale throughout the country.

In 2020, journalist Hilde Baele and Jeroen Janssen released the graphic novel 'Mijn Kameraad Che Guevara' (Oogachtend, 2020), based on 12 years' of research after Ché Guevara's seven month-stay in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1965. Baele and Janssen travelled all the way to Congo and Cuba, talking with people who once met or knew Guevara. They even tracked down Jérôme Sebasoni, who was Ché's guide in Afrika. Baele's report is illustrated with sketches by Janssen. Early installments of their report were prepublished in issue #43 of the comic information magazine Stripgids (fall 2015).

Een Nachtegaal in de Stad, by Jeroen Janssen
'Een Nachtegaal in de Stad'.

Guaranda and Abadaringi
In 2014, Janssen returned to Rwanda. He made a special graphic report which was first published in two issues of Humo (April 2014). Much of his research would inspire his next two graphic novels 'Guaranda' (Oogachtend, 2015) and 'Abadaringi' (Oogachtend, 2016). Both are travel reports inspired by Joe Sacco's similar graphic novels about his voyages to Bosnia and Palestina. Compared with Sacco, Janssen's graphic novels are more observatory in nature, focusing on the local people rather than himself. He received support from the Flemish Literature Fund and the Pascal Decroos Fund. 'Guaranda' reflects Janssen's voyage to Guaranda, Ecuador, where he travelled at the commission of Evergem's city council, since Guaranda is their sister city. 'Abadaringi' deals with his life as a teacher in Nyundo, Rwanda. He talked with former pupils about the impact the 1994 genocide had on their lives. Some still lived in Rwanda, others had moved to Europe and the U.S. Some people were notably tarnished by the events and a minor few took a strong dislike of Janssen. Many of his travel report comics have appeared in magazines like Knack and De Morgen, and on the news websites and Mo*.

Fragment of a comics report about Doel, published on on 20 July 2018.

Janssen also showed compassion for his fellow countrymen with two graphic novels about Doel, a village which has been threatened with demolition for more than half a century. In the 1960s the Antwerp city council had plans to expand their harbour and dispossess the citizens of Doel. This led to a lot of protest and political turmoil. Many people expressed solidarity with Doel. The novel 'Terug naar Oosterdonk', written by Guido van Meir (who also wrote the comic book 'Pest in 't Paleis', 1983, illustrated by Jan Bosschaert) was inspired by it and adapted into a TV series 'Terug naar Oosterdonk' (1997) by Frank van Passel. Documentary maker Manu Riche made the 2015 film 'Oratorium zonder Doel'. Over the decades, many people left the village, which effectively became a ghost town and a haven for squatters. Only fairly recently, in 2018, it was decided to save Doel as it is.

As a former refugee, Janssen could relate to the villagers of Doel. He often visited the place to make sketches, which he didn't redraw afterwards, so he could keep the atmosphere intact. At home, everything was scanned and cut-and-paste in new combinations. Starting off with a short comic published in the French magazine XXI, Janssen eventually made 'Doel' (Oogachtend, 2013). The book is a reflection of his conversations with local people. Sketches, some in black-and-white, others in colour, are alternated with comics and written conversations. 'Doel' won praise by Flemish novelist and columnist Jeroen Olyslaegers and sold out in a few months. In 2018, Janssen created a new book about the topic: 'Er Wonen Nog Mensen - Tekenen Van Leven In Doel' (Oogachtend, 2018). He was inspired by the juridical decision to make Doel a living area again, which oddly enough had the opposite effect. The same people who'd fought to stay in the village for years suddenly moved out one by one. Janssen wanted to make his graphic novel about this paradox.

In 2020, Janssen published 'Posthumus’ (Sherpa, 2020), a graphic novel originally started with writer Pieter van Oudheusden, who passed away seven years earlier. The story is a biographical flashback to the life of 19th-century Austrian composer Franz Schubert, though with occasional creative and anachronistic liberties. Janssen did visit certain locations in Schubert’s lifetime and added bonus sketch material in back of the book. 

Graphic journalism for the Spring 2017 issue of Stripgids.

Other projects
On 11 July 2011, Pieter De Poortere designed a comics mural in the Rue Euler, Paris, featuring characters created by Janssen, Judith Vanistendael, Olivier Schrauwen, Randall Casaer and Brecht Evens, to promote Flemish comic strips. This was the first of its kind in France. Janssen also provides the coloring of 'Hippo & Zeno', a comic strip by Klaas Verplancke. Since he moved to Ghent he plays in the orchestra 'De Ledebirds', a social artistic project. 

Graphic contributions
Janssen was one of several artists to make a comic strip for the booklet 'Building Bridges in Europe’ (2012), published by the European Association of National Builders’ Merchants Associations and Manufacturers (UFEMAT). 

'Muzungu' (1997) won the VSB award at the Stripdagen Haarlem. 'Guaranda' (2015) and 'Abadaringi' (2016) each received the Prix de l'´Écriture at the Festival of Clermont-Ferrand. Nicknamed "Belgium's slowest journalist", Jeroen Janssen won the Bronzen Adhemar, the most prestigious Flemish comics prize, in 2018.

Legacy and influence
Jeroen Janssen was a strong influence on Ben Gijsemans


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